African entrepreneurs are engineering economic solutions

3 min read

A new generation of African engineering entrepreneurs are turning problems into opportunities

African entrepreneurs
Shortlisted entrants for the 2020 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation (Image: RAEng)

A significant disparity exists in continental Africa where the number of young people entering the labour market outnumber the positions available by up to four-to-one.

According to the UN Economic Commission for Africa, around 10–12 million young people enter the workforce per year on a continent that creates approximately three million formal jobs. The same organisation estimates that one third of African youths aged 15–35 are unemployed, and another third are described as ‘vulnerably employed’. Women face higher unemployment and underemployment than men and face greater obstacles to job opportunities and equal pay.

Significantly, the number of African youths is predicted to double to over 830 million by 2050, an apparent demographic timebomb that could be defused by cross-continental government initiatives designed to support young entrepreneurs, many of whom are applying engineering solutions to everyday problems.

Five essential business skills for engineering entrepreneurs

Smart meds dispenser wins RAEng Africa Prize

Among them is Nigerian Aisha Raheem who has developed Farmz2U, a digital platform that prevents food waste by helping farmers plan their crops. She told The Engineer via email that there has been an increase in policies and government sponsored programs to encourage the activities of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME), and start-ups in her country. Some of these include the Central Bank of Nigeria’s MSME Development Fund launched in 2013 and the Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Department (SAED), which supports graduates with loans, training and apprenticeship programs.

In Ghana, the National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan has been recently set up and is offering training and seed capital to young entrepreneurs. Tax incentives exist too for entrepreneurs working in certain fields. In Uganda, a National ICT Initiative Support Programme (NIISP) provides an ecosystem to encourage start-ups.

Adrian Padt is a South African who has developed DryMac, a containerised drying system that uses burning biomass instead of electricity to dry and preserve crops. He said that various seed-funding opportunities exist in South Africa, with the Department of Trade & Industry and Trade & Investment KwaZulu-Natal able to provide start-up funding. Furthermore, the Industrial Development Corporation provides business finance at preferential rates for qualifying start-ups.

The 2019 African Economic Conference concluded that regional success stories should be replicated across the continent with multiple stakeholders exchanging ideas and sharing best practices. Conference partner the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is particularly keen to see entrepreneurship contribute to emerging and developing economies, and cites an OECD study from 2015 which found that out of 18 countries sampled over a 10 year period, SMEs employed up to 65 per cent of the workforce and accounted for up to 75 per cent total gross job creation in Europe.

If properly harnessed, said UNDP, then ‘Africa’s youth bulge has the potential to translate into a dividend for the continent through the creation of enterprises that not only contribute towards economic growth, but also create jobs for their fellow youth.’

This sentiment is echoed by Kenyan Tracy Kimathi, who has developed a solar system that powers communal refrigeration storage spaces in rural Kenya.

“Lack of employment opportunities in large corperates have stirred up the opportunistic ventures of African entrepreneurs in a bid to not only create jobs for themselves but the majority youths that still face unemployment,” she said via email.

For Ghanaian Bernice Dapaah, Africa’s demographic shift is a clear driver of change, but she added ‘the drive toward entrepreneurship is due to the fact that more and more young Africans are now more upbeat about their ability to create and manage businesses than any time in history.’

Dapaah founded EcoRide, a company that makes bamboo bicycles and, in common with Padt and Raheem, is one of the shortlisted entrants to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation 2020.

The prize was launched in 2014 and competition alumni are forecast to impact over three million lives in the next five years, having already created over 1,500 jobs and raised over $14m in grants and equity.

“Foreign support is very important in helping us develop a global outlook and build a stronger foundation on which take our business to the next stratum,” Dapaah said. “I see the Africa Prize as a great opportunity to use its huge intellectual asset to our benefit in growing our business and refining our process engineering.”